- Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Paradoxes of Cultural Translation by Kyle Conway
Kyle Conway's book on Canadian television's hit show Little Mosque on the Prairie analyses the production and circulation of the show as well as its cultural relevance, and the obstacles it had to face, in its efforts to depict an often-ostracized community in a more humanizing way. Set in the fictional rural community of Mercy, Saskatchewan, the series focuses on the Muslim community and explores the interactions between the Muslim and the non-Muslim townspeople. Conway's approach points out how, in a post-9/11 context, the show's producers strove to portray Muslims in a non-threatening manner, resorting to humour to defuse preconceptions related to this community in an effort to attenuate differences between Muslims and non-Muslims and focus instead on their similarities.
The "paradoxes of cultural translation" mentioned in the title inform Conway's discussion, as he presents the reader with the double bind faced by the producers, who wanted to portray Muslims in a positive light and offer a better understanding of this community to a non-Muslim audience, while complying with the network's priorities by creating a popular show that could attract viewers from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. To do so, Conway argues, the producers had to carefully negotiate a series of artistic and narrative decisions to avoid alienating different groups of people in order to guarantee what he calls "saleable diversity." The latter, the author states, is a direct consequence of the aforementioned phenomenon of cultural translation operated by the producers of the show. Conway understands "saleable diversity" as the complex negotiation process that took place during preproduction and that paradoxically consisted of promoting diversity by erasing what was perceived as the most salient and potentially divisive features of a given community (in this particular case, the author explains that avoiding any reference to institutionalized racism to account for the character's feelings and emotions was one of the producers' priorities).
"The resulting erasure of difference in the name of diversity" that characterizes the concept of "saleable diversity" is instrumental to the author's analytical framework, as he perceives it to be the show's stumbling block. [End Page 178] While the producers tried to de-emphasize idiosyncratic behaviour and customs to promote similarities and reflect on human experience, they tended to essentialize Muslims by reducing them to a series of specific traits that would account for the community as a whole. In a chapter he dedicates to the reception of the show outside of Canada, Conway purposefully points out the limits of "saleable diversity," as he lays out the variety of intertextual references at work in various countries when it comes to the perception of Muslims and Islam. While most US journalists framed their discussion of the show in connection to terrorism and the way it portrayed Muslim characters with strong religious beliefs – a significant departure from the American model, where Muslims tend to be presented in a more secular manner – the impact of the show in countries such as France and Norway was more limited, as it only attracted niche audiences. In the case of France, the author interestingly brings out the country's troublesome relationship with its immigrant from North Africa as a possible explanation why what allowed the show to be an overnight hit in Canada did not translate across the Atlantic.
With this book, Kyle Conway lays bare the mechanisms that participate in the creation of a successful sitcom. In so doing, he is able to reveal the ambiguity inherent to this genre – namely, that while it provides an invaluable platform to introduce audiences to new character types, it is ultimately bound by the network's demands in terms of marketability. In addition to offering valuable insights into the creation of one of Canadian television's most successful programs in recent years, Conway's book questions the ways we conceive of otherness in a globalized world.